Seek “harmony but not sameness”, advised the Chinese philosopher Confucius 2,500 years ago. Neither quality was on display when Chinese nationalists violently disrupted a rally in support of anti-government demonstrators in Hong Kong at the University of Queensland in July.
Since then Drew Pavlou, one of the organisers of the sympathy rally, says he has received a litany of threats from Chinese patriots. The passport details of another participant in the rally, who is from the Chinese mainland, have been disseminated on social media. A third says authorities in China visited his family there, to warn them of the consequences of dissent.
Pavlou claims his university has since tried to squelch protests that might upset China, a charge it firmly denies. It is one of 13 campuses in Australia to host a Confucius Institute, a language school and cultural centre funded by the Chinese government. Some students worry about the university’s cosy ties with China. Peter Hoj, its vice chancellor, has worked as a consultant to the Chinese state agency managing Confucius Institutes. Recently, he quietly made a Chinese diplomat, Xu Jie, a visiting professor. Many Australians were outraged when Xu praised the “spontaneous patriotic behaviour” of the Chinese students who instigated the scuffle.
Other Australians are dazzled by the money to be made teaching Chinese students. Relative to the size of its population, Australia now hosts more international students than any other country. Just over a third of them — around 150,000 — come from China. In the universities most eager to woo them, Chinese students now fill about a quarter of all places, says Salvatore Babones of the University of Sydney. This has turned tertiary education into Australia’s third-biggest export, enabling administrators to pump cash into new facilities and research. But the Conservative coalition government seems increasingly worried about the implications for free speech and security.
Lecturers gripe about complaints from Chinese students who bristle at criticism of their government. Some have apologised publicly for supposedly hurting students’ feelings; one was suspended in 2017 after he claimed that ordinary Chinese believe that government officials only ever speak the truth by accident.
Students police each other as well as their teachers. Officially Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, which are backed by the Chinese state, run social events and help newcomers. But they are also assumed to snitch on dissenters, leaving many Chinese students afraid to speak their minds.
Australian universities say they are working with the government to “safeguard security” without “undermining the invaluable asset of global collaboration”. But few seem keen to reduce their dependency on a continuing influx of Chinese students. This amounts to a “crisis of leadership”, a Conservative senator recently asserted. If universities don’t change their tack, says a professor, “they may find that federal agencies do it for them”.